Speeches & Floor Statements

Floor Remarks of U.S. Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.) -- Right-to-Work Legislation

Posted on May 2, 2011

Mr. Alexander:  Madam President, I rise today to talk about a piece of legislation which will be both a bill that Senator Graham and Senator DeMint and I will introduce tomorrow and an amendment that I have filed to the small business bill on behalf of the three of us.

We are calling it the Right to Work Protection Act, and it is our intent to preserve the right of each State to make a decision for itself about whether it will have a right-to-work law and have an ability to enforce it. This is in direct response to an action that the National Labor Relations Board has taken against the Boeing Company and the plant they are building in South Carolina.

The National Labor Relations Board has moved to stop Boeing from building airplanes at a nonunion plant in South Carolina, suggesting that a unionized American company cannot expand its operations into one of 22 States with right-to-work laws. These laws protect a worker's right to join or not to join a union. In fact, the New Hampshire Legislature has just approved its becoming the 23rd such State.

This reminds me, this action by the National Labor Relations Board reminds me of a White House dinner in February 1979 when I was Governor of Tennessee. The occupant of the chair has been to those dinners. The President has them every year. The only ones invited are the Governors themselves and spouses. For me, it was always one of the highlights of the year.

So my first such dinner was with President Carter in 1979. As a new Governor, I was paying close attention to what the President of the United States had to say.

This is what he said:

Governors, go to Japan. Persuade them to make here what they sell here.

I walked 1,000 miles across Tennessee to be Governor the year before, and I don't remember one single Tennessean who said to me: Lamar, the first thing you do when you get in office is go to Japan. That was not on our minds. But it was tough economic times. Not many people were investing anywhere in the United States at that time. I thought, Well, if the President of the United States says, Governors, go to Japan and persuade them to make here what they sell here, I should do that.

"Make here what they sell here" was then the union battle cry. It was part of an effort to slow the tide of Japanese cars and trucks entering the U.S. market. At that time, Americans were very worried about Japan. There were books about Japan being No. 1, and the fear was that Japan would overwhelm us economically. Cars and trucks from Japan were fuel efficient, they were attractive, they were selling, and manufacturers and the United Auto Workers here were concerned that we would lose a lot of jobs. So the cry was to the Japanese: If you are going to sell it in the United States, you need to make it in the United States.

So off I went to Tokyo to meet with the Nissan executives who were then deciding where to put their first U.S. manufacturing plant. At that time, Japan had very few manufacturing plants in the United States. They made there what they sold here. I carried with me on that trip a photograph taken at night from a satellite showing the country with all of its lights on. Try to visualize that. Because what you see if you look at a photograph of the United States at night are a lot of lights east of the Mississippi River, but it is pretty dark almost until you get to California, and there are a lot of lights down around Texas. I was trying to make a point. The Japanese executives, who didn't know very much about Tennessee and I didn't know very much about Japan, would say to me, Where is Tennessee? I would point to our State and say, We are right in the middle of the lights.

My argument, of course, was that locating a plant in the population center of the United States would reduce the cost of transporting cars to customers. That population center 70 or 80 years ago was in the Midwest where the American automobile was literally invented, and it made a lot of sense to build almost all the plants there, because transportation costs were less when you send these heavy cars and trucks to the customers. So you locate your plant near the population center. Gradually, that population center migrated south from the Midwest, where most U.S. plants have been, to Kentucky and Tennessee.

Then the Japanese to whom I was talking examined a second consideration: Tennessee has a right-to-work law and Kentucky does not. That meant that in Kentucky, workers would have to join the United Auto Workers Union. Workers in Tennessee had a choice. In 1980, Nissan chose Tennessee, then a State with almost no auto jobs. Today, auto assembly plants and suppliers provide one-third of our State's manufacturing jobs. Tennessee is home for the production of the Leaf, Nissan's all-electric vehicle, and the batteries that power them. I am happy to report it works well. I have bought one, parked in the garage of the apartment where I live here. Recently Nissan announced that 85?percent of the cars and trucks it sells in the United States will be made in the United States, making it one of the largest so-called "American" auto companies and nearly fulfilling Mr.?Carter's request of 30 years ago.

But now unions want to make it illegal for a company that has experienced repeated strikes to move production to a State with a right-to-work law. What would this mean for the future of American auto jobs? Jobs would flee overseas as manufacturers look for a competitive environment in which to make and sell cars around the world.

It has happened before. David Halberstam's 1986 book "The Reckoning" -- about the decline of the domestic American auto industry -- tells the story. Halberstam quotes American Motors president George Romney who criticized the "shared monopoly" consisting of the Big Three Detroit auto manufacturers and the United Auto Workers. Romney warned, "There is nothing more vulnerable than entrenched success." Detroit ignored upstarts such as Nissan which in the 1960s began selling funny little cars to American customers. We all know what happened to employment in the Big Three companies.

Even when Detroit sought greener pastures in a right-to-work State, its partnership with the United Auto Workers could not compete. In 1985 General Motors located its $5?billion Saturn plant in Spring Hill, TN, 40 miles from the Nissan plant, hoping side-by-side competition would help the Americans beat the Japanese. After 25 years, nonunion Nissan operated the most efficient plant in North America. The Saturn/UAW partnership never made a profit. Last year, GM closed Saturn.

Nissan's success is one reason why Volkswagen recently located in Chattanooga and why Honda, Toyota, BMW, Kia, Mercedes-Benz, Hyundai, and thousands of suppliers have chosen southeastern right-to-work States for their plants. Under right-to-work laws, employees may join unions, but mostly they have declined. Three times workers at the Nissan plant in Smyrna, TN, rejected organizing themselves like Saturn employees a few miles away.

Our goal should be to make it easier and cheaper to create private-sector jobs in this country. Giving workers the right to join or not to join a union helps to create a competitive environment in which more manufacturers such as Nissan can make here 85?percent of what they sell here.

Madam President, I ask unanimous consent to have printed in the Record the amendment and bill that I and Senator Graham and Senator DeMint will be introducing tomorrow and which we filed as an amendment today.

I thank the Chair. I wish to add that I saw today a representative of the Whirlpool Company which has 2,500 employees in Tennessee. He said Whirlpool makes 82?percent of what they sell in the United States here in the United States, but that they have a choice. They have plants in Mexico as well. It is one more example of why allowing States to have a right-to-work law keeps jobs in our country.

I see on the floor Senator DeMint, whose State is directly affected by this NLRB decision. He and I are working together on this legislation. I am sure he has comments on the legislation and on the decision of the NLRB.